Thoughts on gun control

There had been the Weapons Law, for a start. Weapons were involved in so many crimes that, Swing reasoned, reducing the number of weapons *had* to reduce the crime rate.

Vimes wondered if he’d sat up in bed in the middle of the night and hugged himself when he’d dreamed *that* one up. Confiscate all weapons, and crime would go down. it made sense. it would have worked, too, if only there had been enough coppers–say, three per citizen. Amazingly, quite a few weapons were handed in. The flaw, though, was one that had somehow managed to escape Swing, and it was this: criminals don’t obey the law. It’s more or less a requirement for the job. They had no particular interest in making the streets safer for anyone except themselves. And they couldn’t believe what was happening. It was like Hogswatch every day. [Night Watch by Terry Pratchett]

The Law of Unintended Consequences, aka Sod’s Law, rules supreme. An argument often made about controlling the availability of weapons is that if the law regulates weapons, only criminals will have weapons. Loathe as I am to disagree with one of my favourite literary characters, there are other reasons to regulate weapons. The disaster in Connecticut today illustrates one of them.

Generally, I believe, criminals do not shoot civilians (except in extreme situations like gang wars). The people who kill children and innocent adults tend not to be career criminals, but disturbed and occasionally just evil people who have access to weapons. Reducing and regulating weapons in a civilised society alleviates that. If Adam Lanza had not had easy access to guns, which are, let us recall, designed for the single purpose of seriously injuring and killing people, his mental issues need not have resulted in the deaths of 20 children and 7 adults.

And in any case the availability of guns to noncriminals does not result in them being safer. If anything, the deaths caused by civilian gun use exceed the cases in which people are able to “take down” criminals. I gather in one case that more people were shot by bystanders than by a gunman (but I cannot recall the case, so cavil at that if you like).

I live in a country that regulates weapons. No, it hasn’t made much dent on criminals having guns, largely because there was such a high number of weapons in the community when the laws were introduced that it can be expected to take time to have effect, but recent reports of criminals trying to import weapons or steal them from the military indicate that it is getting harder. But we have reduced the number of mad-gun attacks, and I feel things are better for the laws. Mind you, I would be happier if the police, who are responsible for an uncomfortable number of shootings, did not have them, or Tasers either. If you have a tool, you reach for it in every case. 

27 thoughts on “Thoughts on gun control

    1. I’m not an American, nor a constitutional lawyer, so I am unable to make a case here, but it seems to me if you can have Church-State separation and still regulate the behaviours of churches, you can have a right to bear arms and still regulate the behaviours of arms-bearers. And that might, for example, require that arms are always held at an authorised storage place, to which anyone who owns a gun must go in order to access it. Also, the right to carry arms in public can also be regulated constitutionally, I bet. There are all kinds of steps that can be taken under the US Constitution.

      But in my view, in a civilised country, nobody has a right to bear arms. It is a privilege that must be earned and maintained. Other countries that do regulate arms have a much lower rate of gun death and gun-related crime than the US. The Americans are trapped in a historical accident.

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      1. “The Americans are trapped in a historical accident.”

        As an American, I sadly agree. Of all the amendments in the Bill of Rights, the 2nd Amendment has aged the worst. In an era of single-shot firearms, it wasn’t so much of a problem, but it’s far more of a liability with weapons that can kill dozens of people in minutes with a few pulls of a trigger.

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    2. There is already legislation surrounding the First Amendment, not to mention Common Law notions like slander and libel.

      The Founding Fathers never intended rights to be absolute. The right to worship as one will does not permit any religion to make human sacrifices, for instance, not does freedom of speech mean you can’t be thrown in prison if you reveal state secrets.

      Certainly that has been the tact for legislation like the Brady bill.

      Beyond that, the 2nd Amendment is an anachronism, a fossil from when a rebel force could hope to field an army near or at parity with a tyrant’s forces. Even by the US Civil War, the Confederacy proved incapable of reproducing the successes of the American Revolutionaries, and now any rebel force would be taking on the most powerful and technologically advanced military in all of history. Technology and pure military strength has rendered the 2nd Amendment obsolete. If the US government truly did become tyrannical, there’s not much some survivalist types in Oregon couldndo about it, even if they had ten times the weaponry they possess.

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  1. We shouldn’t accept the gun absolutists’ Constitutional interpretation, it didn’t get SCOTUS support until a few years ago. Nevertheless, don’t forget that there’s a lot of well regulation between full-abolition and Apocalypse Now.

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  2. For me, one of the advantages of moving to the United States and being granted American citizenship was that it
    enabled me to take up shooting as a recreation. This had become almost impossible in the United Kingdom following the draconian firearms legislation enacted in the wake of the Dunblane massacre.

    Let me emphasize I haven’t the slightest desire to shoot anything living. I do not and will not take part in any sort of hunting. What I do enjoy is target-shooting at the local range and one day I would like to try Cowboy Action Shooting and clay pigeon shooting.

    I think that the vast majority of firearms owners, save for the hunting, are much like me. The few disturbed individuals who carry out these spree killings are a tiny fraction of that population. Nonetheless, firearms are weapons, designed to kill, so how should society deal with such dangerous devices?

    I would start from basic principles taken from Mill’s On Liberty. He argued that individuals in a free society should be able to do pretty much whatever they wanted up to the point at which they became a threat to the rights and interests of others. The presumption should always be in favor of individual rights while allowing that society has a right to protect itself against those who do not voluntarily respect the rights of others.

    In the case of firearms, there should be properly approved and managed ranges and areas of open land reserved for that purpose where people can shoot safely without endangering others. Guns and ammunition should be stored separately in secure containers in the buildings where they are housed and while being transported.

    Since we require individuals to qualify for a licence before being allowed to drive motor vehicles on the open road – machines not designed to kill – then the same at least should apply to ownership of firearms – which are.

    I personally would also allow firearms to be licenced and carried for self-defense since I believe we have the right to defend ourselves. However, there is evidence to show that guns are almost useless in emergencies where there are only seconds to react unless the owner has been thoroughly trained in what to do. So, to qualify for something like a concealed carry permit, an applicant would have to agree to stringent background checks, undergo lengthy and rigorous training and pass an examination.

    Would these measures prevent mass shootings like the Sandy Hook massacre ever happening again? No, nothing can provide absolute security against a disturbed individual who is prepared to die but they would, I believe greatly reduce the incidence of such tragedies.

    I think they would strike a proper balance between the legitimate interests of society as a whole and the rights and freedoms of individuals within it. In my view, both the UK and Australia have overbalanced in favor of society on the question of gun ownership, possibly because there is not such a strong tradition of protected rights as in the US.

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    1. I have used handguns and rifles. I find them fun to use, and turned out to be surprisingly good at it. But fun is not a justification for dangerous tools designed to kill and injure being freely available without restriction in a society.

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      1. I thought that’s what I was saying. I’m not for a moment suggesting that you should be able to buy them over the counter as if they were a screwdriver. They have to be regulated. But, given that their use can be managed with an acceptable degree of safety, why not?

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  3. The right to possess weapons, items whose only purpose is to kill serves no one’s interest – not the individual and not society.

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    1. It serves the interests of those who would like to shoot as sport or recreation. Why should their interests be any less worthy of consideration than those who like to drive fast cars – or motorcycles?

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  4. Mr. Susan and I suspect (and I should mention that Mr. Susan is an award winning, almost Olympics-qualified mad skillz shooter) that if some of these guys were armed with a bat, not a gun, bystanders would take them down after they whacked their first victim. Guns, at least some guns, are the problem. Personal and psychological issues of the perpetrators are another discussion.

    This has been a horrible day.

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    1. A gun on its own harms no one. A disturbed individual with a stick is fairly limited as to the amount of harm he or she can cause. Put the two together and you potentially have a problem. So the idea should be to keep them apart as far as possible.

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  5. John, if you can have a rational discussion with people who are capable of seeing a tragedy like this and then argue for their right to have guns, good on you. I can’t. The only response I am capable of in such a situation is one that would involve calling them names that you expressly ask us not to on your blog.

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    1. It is horrible, but I know many gun fans, and the vast majority of them are decent and sensible people. I do not think it is worthwhile setting the bar so low as to catch the problem people in a way that affects everyone. That would be like making everyone drive at 15km/h because idiots kill children on the roads. I know guns are designed to kill and injure, and so they should be highly restricted, but I cannot see the need to ban them entirely.

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  6. My understanding is Australian gun laws have always been tight, and that despite the fuss the gun lobby stirs up every time they are tightened still further, changes to the law have always been incremental. The most radical thing about the post–Port Arthur laws, as I understand it, was not that it made gun ownership much more difficult than it already was, but that it made the law consistent across the states.

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  7. Most weapons are not “designed for the single purpose of seriously injuring and killing people,” but rather to threaten or frighten those who would otherwise exercise power over you into not exercising that power. The weapon “does its job” not just when the trigger is pulled, but more often when the other person rationally decides not to interfere with your freedom.

    The 2nd Amendment was written before Rousseau’s view of Man as innately decent became popular. Hobbes’s view instead made more sense: that individuals need protection from other individuals, especially those who are physically or politically stronger. The Founding Fathers’ idea was that widespread gun ownership would obviate the need for a standing army, and thus remove the danger of a military coup. They may have been mistaken about the respective risks involved, but they weren’t just a bunch of stupid violent gun-toting cowboys. They were intelligent, reflective, liberal-minded people who were trying to make arrangements to protect individual freedoms as best they knew how.

    Nowadays it’s easy to see that the 2nd Amendment must go. But I understand the reluctance of many Americans to tinker with their Bill of Rights. The 1st Amendment of that Bill is an exceptionally effective protector of freedom of thought and expression, and the free press. It is much better than anything we have in Europe. I can see why many Americans think they should proceed with great caution.

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    1. Jefferson at least thought that the Constitution should rewritten and reinterpreted to reflect the views of the living generation, not treated as a national Bible. He might be horrified to see himself treated as an infallible timeless Founder-deity.

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  8. I was discussing this with the man in the Chinese Takeaway shop last night.

    We concluded that there is no chance of any immediate gun control law changes working in the USA. There are already too many guns in circulation, and it is too easy to get new illegal guns (another consequences of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror).

    I think the USA is stuck with the consequences of its history. Being an optimist I had some hopes for steady slow small changes having an effect over time, but even then I think it could take generations.

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  9. Forty nine of the 50 USA states have concealed carry permit laws, and the holdout, Illinois, is going to fall into line, I think. Texas is number four, 3% of the population, behind Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

    The mass shootings occur in gun free zones. Maybe those should be eleminated (there is some possibility of this in Texas.) Someone pointed out the correlation with all the mass shooters being white males. If we retain gun free zones, perhaps we could solve the problem by strip searching any white males who wish to enter.

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    1. What a ridiculous ignorant statement .

      “Someone pointed out the correlation with all the mass shooters being white males. If we retain gun free zones, perhaps we could solve the problem by strip searching any white males who wish to enter.”

      These kind of idiotic offensive racist &sexist statements do nothing but place walls in front of finding reasonable and rational solutions to a extremely complex problem. If you care about the truth read this.
      http://www.academia.edu/1199492/Hegemonic_Masculinity_and_Mass_Murderers_in_the_United_States

      If you look at gun laws around the world and gun related murders like NZ liberal laws low gun related murders, Mexico tight gun laws high gun related murders. It may open up the thought that ease of access to guns might not be the the only factor in causing this problem. There’s also a broken mental health system. There may be cultural issues as well.

      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_politics#section_2

      http://www.crime.co.nz/c-files.aspx?ID=10751

      http://www.npr.org/2011/01/05/132652351/tracking-gun-dealers-linked-to-mexican-violence

      http://www.newjerseynewsroom.com/commentary/us-mental-health-system-is-broken-why-we-can-expect-more-mass-murders

      http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2012/10/01/shootings-expose-cracks-in-us-mental-health-system/1607127/

      http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-neglect-of-mental-illness

      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_politics_in_the_United_States#section_1

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  10. I agree with most or all of what you say, but I’m just going to single out one sentence for comment, where you write “Generally, I believe, criminals do not shoot civilians (except in extreme situations like gang wars)”. I live in a city (Marseilles) that has a reputation for being a very violent and dangerous place. Most of the time this reputation is undeserved, but this year (since February) has been the worst for a long time, with around one gang shooting per week. (This is believed to be a struggle for power in the drug distribution circles after the previous boss died or retired or went somewhere else.) So, are we all going around in terror for our lives? On the whole no, because the criminals are only interested in killing one another and go about their activities in a very professional manner. They don’t seem to be interested in creating a climate of fear in the general population. I don’t think any innocent bystanders have been killed (or even injured) in these shootings this year. So I think you are right, even during gang wars: criminals do not usually shoot civilians.

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  11. Generally, I believe, criminals do not shoot civilians (except in extreme situations like gang wars).

    Except for the criminals we call ‘terrorists’. IRA, RAF, ETA, Al-Qaida, there were and are quite a lot of them. In general these people prefer bombs over guns, but e.g. Anders Breivik used both.

    Of course you could argue over whether terrorists could be classified as criminals, but that is what legal systems generally do.

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